Indian Decade

Will Banerjee Derail UPA?

Plans for a hike in rail fares by Dinesh Trivedi have angered West Bengal’s chief minister. Congress is in trouble.

The United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is facing an existential crisis, a reality made clear by the furor over the country’s railway minister.

Controversy has been swirling around Dinesh Trivedi, who has reportedly handed in his resignation only hours after presenting his maiden rail budget in parliament on March 14. The problem for the Congress-led government is that the pressure on him to step down has apparently come not from Singh, whose party strongly backed the budget, but Mamata Banerjee, who heads Trivedi’s own Trinamool Congress. Banerjee is also chief minister of West Bengal, and was said to have been angered over Trivedi’s suggestion of a moderate hike in passenger rail fares, something that hasn’t been done for years.

Banerjee is said to have demanded either a rollback of the plan, or his resignation. His continued defiance triggered a letter from Banerjee to Singh recommending that he be sacked and replaced by another Trinamool union minister, Mukul Roy. The government has for its part conveyed to her that there is no way the government could relieve Trivedi of his duties as railway minister before March 30, when parliament is expected to pass the rail budget. However, reports have emerged today that there is pressure within the Congress to decide this sooner.

This is classic theater of the absurd. But it has also brought into question the future of the UPA government, which depends on the troublesome Trinamool Congress for support. The Congress is examining its options as the rail budget is now the government’s property, and if the budget fails to pass in parliament the government will have no choice but to step down. (The Indian Constitution mandates the ouster of the government if it fails to get a money bill passed, and the rail budget is one such bill.)

The Congress is now mulling whether to replace Trinamool Congress (TMC) with the Samajwadi Party, the latter which has 22 members in the Lok Sabha, compared with TMC’s 21 members. The Congress can also take comfort from the fact that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has been so badly battered in the just-concluded election in Uttar Pradesh that it doesn’t make much sense for it to oppose the UPA government.

But the idea of SP and BSP steadying the UPA ship is fraught with difficulties, not least the fact that both parties are facing a plethora of corruption cases that are now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation. While this gives political leverage to the central government, it also makes the UPA government vulnerable ethically.

That said, ethics haven’t exactly been high on the list of priorities for India’s political parties.